Making Consent Count: rape culture in Oxford and beyond

WARNING: The following article contains frank discussion of rape and sexual violence. 

Oxford City Council is running a campaign called Check Consent. They’re reaching out through posters, beer mats and social media to challenge unhealthy attitudes towards sex and prevent violence and abuse in relationships. This sort of campaign might feel alien to some students, but actually it is crucial to people at university. The NUS Hidden Marks report shows that 1 in 4 female students will experience sexual assault when in higher education. Oxford in particular has a massive problem with high rates of sexual harassment (something I am prioritizing in OUSU this year). You only have to look at the It Happens Here blog to see that we’re not magically immune from this problem. Sexual violence doesn’t disappear just because we go to a prestigious university.

What is key to the check consent campaign is that it emphasizes how everyone having sex has a responsibility to check the consent of their partner(s). The online narratives from It Happens Here show that lots of the time, people are being assaulted by people that they know. The lack of communication during sex leads to rape. When no-one checks for consent, there is the potential that  someone else hasn’t given it.
However, there’s a myth of what sexual assault is like. There’s a narrative perpetuated by the media that women are raped, when they are out, alone, at night, by a creep hiding in a bush. However, it is actually more likely to be someone known to the victim and the most common site of sexual assault is the home. The narratives on the It Happens Here blog show that the perpetrator is usually someone that person knows. It can be a friend, an acquaintance, or a partner. Whilst there are occasions that don’t fit this pattern, many of these encounters could be avoided if the perpetrator had cared to check for the
consent of their partner.
The check consent campaign shows how much this conversation needs to go on between partners. We need to move beyond the myth of the ‘strange old man out to get you’ and examine the effects of this misinformation. Some of the stories from survivors show that some perpetrators think they’re ‘just messing around’, or that men can’t be assaulted because they should be ‘gagging for pussy’ all the time. People make the assumption that because they don’t fit the stereotype of a creepy man in a trench coat that campaigns about rape aren’t relevant to their lives. Yet students are speaking out to show that rape happens when one person doesn’t value this type of communication.
Another messed up idea is that the absence of a no during sex means the presence of a yes. The implication of this myth is that unless a person physically stops you, then they really do want it.  But a couple of stories on the blog show that people feel self-conscious saying that they’re not up for it and, even more worryingly, feel unable to enforce their ‘no’ once they’ve already said it. One person even says that even though they knew that it was rape, they couldn’t tell the person that they were with. When people don’t check for the consent of their partners, there is always the chance that this person isn’t comfortable, but feels embarrassed or unable to say that they feel violated. Oxford students should be more than able to find ways to search for consent.
It’s difficult to react to the depressingly high rate of sexual violence on campuses around the UK. Rape prevention is made harder by a culture that glorifies wearing down people’s ability to say no, denying people’s experiences when they speak out about them and using rape as the punchline to a joke.  (This is what people mean when they use the term ‘rape culture’.) Survivors of sexual assault live in a world that normalizes sexual violence, and excuses perpetrators from any responsibility for what they have done. Blurred Lines, my least favourite song, is a key example of this: lyrics like ‘the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty’ and ‘I know you want it’ feed into the perspective that people don’t have to check for consent, that boundaries don’t need to be articulated or respected.
Internationally, the University of British Columbia, the top university in Canada,  has freshers’ week initiations where students chant “we like ‘em young… N is for NO CONSENT!” This is obviously disgusting, but I’ve been at social events at Oxford that feel very similar. Rape culture is something encountered on a daily basis and it seeps into the mindsets of those that witness it.
Therefore we need a campaign that calls out this rubbish for what it is. When, as young people, we have been exposed to media that frames sexual communication as awkward, unnecessary and unromantic, we need to start accepting that explicitly checking for consent is necessary. This campaign and OUSU’s work on the sexual consent discussion groups in freshers’ weeks open up conversations about sexual consent. It’s a vital priority for any community because there is no other way to know that we’re not hurting the people we have sex with.
Sarah Pine is Vice President (Women) of the OUSU.